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Critical Essay by Michael J. Yavenditti
SOURCE: "John Hersey and the American Conscience: The Reception of Hiroshima," in Pacific Historical Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, February, 1974, pp. 24-49.
In the following essay, Yavenditti outlines the context of the public's response to the stories in Hiroshima.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and of Nagasaki, three days later, has spawned a considerable literature by survivors, journalists, novelists, scholars, and official government sources. Several films on the development of the atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project), the decision to use it, and the ordeal of its victims have reached limited audiences in America and abroad. Yet of all the accounts of the atomic bombings, probably none has been more widely read and appreciated by Americans than John Hersey's Hiroshima. Commonly assigned in high school and college classes, Hersey's little book has provided a generation of students with their most moving—and often their only—representation of an atomic bombing from the point of view of those who survived it.
If Hiroshima has enduring appeal, its precise impact on readers from 1946 to the present is difficult to gauge. We should guard, moreover, against the assumption that Hersey's account is "merely" a timeless literary classic. To understand its popularity and significance, the work should be examined in the context of the time in which it first appeared. The following essay evaluates aspects of the post-World War II American milieu, the circumstances which led to the writing and publication of Hiroshima, and the techniques which Hersey employed in order to determine the meaning of his study for the Americans who first encountered it. The essay thereby hopes to shed some light on the larger implications of the atomic bombings for the American conscience.
In 1945 Americans generally applauded the use of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. According to the Gallup poll of August 16, 1945, 85 percent of those Americans surveyed approved the atomic bombings, while only 10 percent disapproved and 5 percent had no opinion. Although the Fortune survey of November 30, 1945, undertaken by Elmo Roper, superficially suggested more doubts, it nevertheless demonstrated that fully 76.2 percent of those surveyed either approved the atomic bombings without reservations or actually desired that more atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan.
Some articulate Americans bitterly censured the atomic bombings. Most spokesmen for Roman Catholicism condemned the bombings because those responsible had ignored the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Thirty-four eminent Protestant clergymen signed a petition to President Harry S. Truman denouncing the atomic "atrocity" and comparing it to the Japanese bombardment of defenseless civilian populations. One woman, echoing a frequently expressed complaint, suggested that the United States should have followed "the way the Lord conducted things at Sodom and Gomorrah" and given "ample notice to the civilians of Hiroshima."
Yet most Americans praised the bomb for ending a bloody war. For Americans with bitter memories of such events as the Pearl Harbor attack and the Bataan Death March, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were appropriate vengeance for Japan's alleged deceptions and atrocities. Americans who had earlier condoned the destruction of enemy cities by conventional bombs and incendiaries saw the atomic bomb as a more efficient form of obliteration bombing. An understandable pride in the extraordinary cooperative achievement of American science, industry, and government also helped minimize objections to the atomic bombings.
In the postwar period Americans not only approved the atomic bombings, they also became increasingly apathetic about the controversy regarding the bomb's use. No single event created this apathy, but several mutually reinforcing developments, which dulled American sensitivities, diminished interest in the debate. One such development involved fear of the potentially dangerous aftereffects of radiation. Japanese sources charged that the atomic bomb had contaminated the earth of Hiroshima with radioactivity, killing 30,000 to 60,000 Japanese in the two weeks after the bombing. Yet General Leslie R. Groves, wartime director of the Manhattan Project, convincingly refuted this claim. Dr. Stafford L. Warren, who headed a team of American medical investigators in Japan, stated that less than eight percent of all Japanese fatalities from the bomb came from gamma radiation. For those Americans who still had misgivings about radiation poisoning, Groves told them that doctors had assured him "it is a very pleasant way to die." Hampered by censorship restrictions, the mass media made little effort to challenge these statements or to arouse American sympathy over the radiation effects of the bomb.
Two additional developments, which minimized the bomb's destructive power, helped to solidify the growing apathy about the atomic bombings by rendering the weapon less unique, more familiar, and less threatening. Major Alexander P. de Seversky openly debunked the new weapon. A well-known aviator, airplane designer, and propagandist for strategic air power, De Seversky, in September 1945, undertook a study of the effect of air power on the Pacific war. Because of his position as a special consultant to the Secretary of War, his subsequent article in the February, 1946, issue of the Reader's Digest ignited a small but significant controversy.
Attributing the heavy loss of life at Hiroshima to the flimsy nature of Japanese construction and to the fires caused by ruptured gas mains and overturned stoves and lamps, De Seversky denied that Hiroshima and its inhabitants had been instantly "vaporized." He conceded that the bomb gave Japan a "face-saving excuse for surrender," but he argued that an atomic bomb would do no more damage to a modern steel and concrete city than an ordinary ten-ton TNT blockbuster. Although subsequently challenged by military and scientific spokesmen, by radio commentators, and even by the senior editor of the Reader's Digest, De Seversky stubbornly maintained his position. De Seversky's role as a known propagandist for strategic air power possibly reduced his credibility among the knowledgeable few. Nevertheless, he helped foster the public tendency toward apathy about the atomic bombings. His assurances, together with the results of the Bikini Lagoon atomic bomb tests, encouraged Americans to lose some of their fear of the bomb.
The Bikini tests of 1946, code-named Operation Crossroads, grew out of the United States Navy's desire to discover what the atomic bomb would do to warships. The government planned three separate tests: Test Able, where a Nagasaki-type bomb would explode at high-altitude over the ships; Test Baker, where a similar atomic bomb would burst just beneath the surface of the ocean; and Test Charlie, which would entail the explosion of an atomic bomb far beneath the ocean's surface.
The first Bikini test failed to live up to popular expectations. Vice Admiral W. H. P. Blandy, who had overall responsibility for Operation Crossroads, broadly intimated that "scientists expect the results [of Test Able] to be as drastic as at Nagasaki." Blandy grossly exaggerated the anticipations of most atomic scientists, but his comment gave indirect support to the minority of legitimate scientists (and a few doomsday crackpots) who feared that the tests might cause tidal waves, earthquakes, or violent weather changes. Following such grandiose predictions, the results of Test Able, held on July 1, disappointed reporters, foreign officials, and military observers. Viewing the explosion with the rest of the press corps from fourteen miles away, one reporter recalled that "the sound of the bomb … was like the sound of a discreet belch at the other end of a bar." Initial press reports informed the American public that only two ships—later revised upward to five—had been sunk by the high-altitude explosion.
Although some careful journalists did not underestimate the significance of Test Able and of the more sobering Test Baker, held on July 25, Operation Crossroads and the way it was reported lulled Americans and fostered American and world complacency. Public opinion studies demonstrated that the damage at Bikini fell short of expectations at home and abroad. Concerned scientists and laymen tried to point out the truly ominous significance of the Bikini tests, but they could not prevail against the initial impressions.
To be sure, Americans were not universally apathetic about atomic energy and its potentially harmful as well as beneficial implications for their future. Many atomic scientists, the National Committee on Atomic Information (NCAI), the United World Federalists, and such journalists as Norman Cousins and Raymond Gram Swing alerted the American public to the horrors of atomic warfare and to the urgent need for international control of atomic energy. Furthermore, some evidence, notably that contained in reports of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), had emerged which questioned the military necessity of using the atomic bomb to defeat Japan. Although few Americans read the USSBS reports (which, in any case, offered as much support to the defenders as to the critics of the atomic bombings), limited discussion of them in the mass media kept alive the waning controversy over the bomb's use.
Nevertheless, one year after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans had learned too little about the bomb to become aroused over its use against Japan. Since the United States still enjoyed a monopoly on the weapon, Americans had no immediate fear of atomic attack. De Seversky's article and press coverage of Operation Crossroads tended to diminish the threat posed by the bomb, enabling Americans to blur any possible qualitative distinctions between it and conventional weapons of war.
Even though popular wartime images of the Japanese were softening slowly, the lessening hostility produced little American soul-searching about the atomic bombings. On the contrary, in early and mid-1946 much of the writing about the bombed cities stressed several interrelated themes, none of which gave Americans cause to regret the bomb's use. First, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were universalized and rendered less disturbing to the American conscience by the alleged response of their survivors; citizens of the two cities eventually reacted just as victims of other wartime and natural calamities—by returning to their devastated cities and beginning the task of reconstruction. At the same time, journalists increasingly portrayed Hiroshima and Nagasaki as symbols of the birth of a new Japan dedicated to rehabilitation, peace, progress, and reconciliation. The American press depicted Hiroshima, in particular, as a microcosm of the Japanese nation which was progressing steadily under wise American tutelage and developing a pacifist outlook which would curb Japan's warlike tendencies in the future.
Then, on August 31, 1946, the New Yorker devoted its entire issue to an account of the first atomic bombing that was written by a young but well-known journalist, John Hersey. Entitled simply "Hiroshima," the article was an immediate sensation. Newsstand copies quickly disappeared, and within a few days original issues became collector's items. An enthusiastic reader exclaimed that "no one is talking about anything else but the Hersey article for the last two days, either in trains, restaurants, or at home…." Praising it as "one of the great classics of the war," a New Republic editor declared that, "if it is eligible for a Pulitzer Prize and doesn't get it, the judges should go take a Rorshock [sic]."
Although initially published in a magazine of limited circulation, "Hiroshima" quickly acquired a wider audience. New Yorker readers urged that it be reprinted "by the millions." Scientists' organizations, the NCAI, the Army, and the Atomic Energy Commission clamored for thousands of copies, which these groups intended to distribute in order to impress Americans with the power of the new weapon. Hersey and the New Yorker permitted newspapers to reprint it on two conditions: that all profits go to the Red Cross and that the article must not be abridged. The entire text of the article was read in four special half-hour broadcasts, with all commercials cancelled, over the American Broadcasting Company and many of its affiliates from September 9 through September 12. The article quickly reached international audiences through similar broadcasts or through pirated printed editions. Published as a book in 1946, it became a best-seller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
The author of this remarkable article was born in China and educated at Yale University. Hersey had worked for Time-Life publications in the late 1930s, and, then, after Pearl Harbor, had turned his attention to wartime reporting. Before the appearance of "Hiroshima" Hersey had written many articles for national magazines and three books with wartime settings. He later declared:
Looking back, I find that in most of my story telling, in both journalism and fiction, I have been obsessed, as any serious writer in violent times could not help being, by one overriding question, the existential question: What is it that, by a narrow margin, keeps us going, in the face of our crimes, our follies, our passions, our sorrow, our panics, our hideous drives to kill?
What has interested Hersey is man's staying power, his "refusals to be destroyed by devilments devised by the foul side of the human mind."
In writing "Hiroshima," however, Hersey was guided more by his concern for human interest than by an explicit philosophy of human nature. "Hiroshima" was popular, not because Hersey advanced theories about the will to survive, but because he did what no one had accomplished before: he recreated the entire experience of atomic bombing from the victims' point of view. The contrast between the apparently objective simplicity of his prose and the enormity of the phenomenon he described made "Hiroshima" all the more graphic and frightening for most readers.
Father John A. Siemes, a Jesuit priest in Hiroshima, had published an eyewitness account of the atomic bombing prior to the appearance of "Hiroshima." But the Siemes article did not enjoy wide circulation, nor did it satisfy the longing of some informed Americans that the bombing should be rendered less abstract, static, and impersonal. Despite the many post-bombing pictures and discussions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, three scientists wrote,
… the full horror of the destruction has not yet been shown in pictures or described in words. It is hard to portray the effects that heat and gamma rays … had on people. The fires that raged unchecked for days after the explosions were not photographed from the ground. The pictures of steel-frame buildings that still stand and appear to be only slightly harmed do not show the wrecked partitions and furniture or the remains of the people who were inside. Finally, it is hard to visualize the paralysis of nearly all fire-fighting and medical services. Many injured persons died in fires because there were no first-aid facilities left to help them.
While Hersey did wish to make the experience of atomic bombing less abstract, he was not writing as a propagandist, polemicist, or spokesman for groups interested in atomic energy. The article grew out of a trip Hersey made to China and Japan in October and November 1945 for Life and the New Yorker. Before he departed, he discussed with William Shawn, co-managing editor of the New Yorker, the possibility of an article on Hiroshima. Although the New Yorker traditionally specialized in light, urbane articles, it had also carried many war stories, and its sponsorship of "Hiroshima" was not unusual.
As Hersey researched his story in Japan, he also searched for a method of presentation which would capture the human element. He re-read Thorton Wilder's Bridge of San Luis Rey, in which Wilder examined the significance of an event in terms of the past experience of several characters. Wilder's approach apparently reinforced Hersey's inclination to use this literary technique, which Hersey had employed previously in Into the Valley and Men On Bataan.
For technical details concerning the bomb's damage, he drew upon his own observations, those of Japanese and American scientists, preliminary USSBS data, and especially upon interviews with Japanese who experienced the blast. After interrogating approximately forty people, Hersey settled upon six individuals—five Japanese and one German Catholic priest—around whose experiences he constructed his article. Although the ordeal of these informants may have been representative of the Hiroshima survivors, the individuals in a sense were not. Several of them enjoyed greater status, higher income, or more education than the average Hiroshima resident. Hersey chose these six largely because he could bridge the language barrier more easily with them than he could with many other survivors whom he interviewed.
In writing the article, Hersey deliberately—though indirectly—expressed his own feelings about the bomb by emphasizing the specific terrors of the characters he described. Instead of moralizing or preaching, he intended "to help readers to find their own deepest feelings about this new instrument of killing, rather than to require that they accept [mine]." When Hersey first learned of the atomic bomb from a radio address by President Truman, he had a sense of despair—but less a feeling of guilt or compassion for the victims than a fear for the future of the world. Hersey felt at the same time greatly relieved, convinced that the bomb would end the war against fascism and militarism. Subsequently, as reports by other journalists about the damage appeared in the press, he experienced a growing sense of discomfort. When he arrived in Hiroshima he found that researching the story "was a kind of horror." Hersey came to question the wisdom of dropping the bomb, but he remained unconvinced that a trial demonstration of it on an uninhabited island would have persuaded the Japanese to surrender.
Like most Americans in 1945, Hersey regarded the Japanese as a tenacious, even fanatical, enemy, and undoubtedly his own observations on Guadalcanal and elsewhere in the Pacific reinforced rather than weakened this impression. Yet Hersey's wartime articles and books did not betray the irrational, racist, anti-Japanese feelings that characterized the writing of some American reporters. His objectivity was particularly remarkable because he had been exposed during his youth in China to the strong anti-Japanese prejudices of the Chinese. At the time he heard President Truman's announcement of the bomb, his views on Japanese wartime tenacity made him feel that the weapon might at least help to cut short the killing. The human devastation caused by explosive and incendiary raids on other Japanese (and German) cities seemed to him just as morally reprehensible as the killing done by the atomic bomb; to Hersey "what had been added was a terrifying factor of efficiency." His first-hand observations in Japan gave him a sense of revulsion toward the weapon, a compassion for its victims, and a deliberately understated admiration for the survivors as fellow human beings.
After what Hersey recalls as a "close editing" of the manuscript by New Yorker editors, it was ready for publication. He did not submit his material to the U.S. government for censorship clearance. He originally intended to write only one short article, but, as the manuscript lengthened, he prepared four articles to run in successive issues. Concerned about maintaining reader interest over four issues, coeditor William Shawn suggested putting the entire manuscript in one issue. On August 31, 1946, this was done—for the first time in New Yorker experience. The decision to devote the entire issue to "Hiroshima" came too late to change the tranquil picnic-scene cover, but some advertisements, which seemed grotesque or shocking juxtaposed with the article, were removed.
The result was a minor literary bombshell. Entirely a factual account, "Hiroshima" described individuals with whom readers could identify. For perhaps the first time since Pearl Harbor thousands of Americans confronted Japanese who were ordinary human beings and who manifested few of the stereotyped Japanese warrior traits of fanaticism and sadism. Moreover, Hersey allowed Americans to visualize the actual experience of the Japanese in Hiroshima—the initial surprise of the inhabitants, the terrible fire storm, the devastation of medical services, and the frightened, bleeding, confused survivors. The article also touched the sympathies of readers because Hiroshima, previously spared by American bombers, had been totally undamaged by conventional bombing. The appearance of several airplanes on the morning of August 6 alarmed few military personnel or civilians, who thought the planes were part of normal reconnaissance flights which regularly flew over the city. Many, therefore, did not seek shelter. Consequently, the atomic attack demonstrated the savage power of the new weapon in an almost laboratory-type experiment on human beings and seemingly confirmed a prior rumor among Hiroshima residents "that the Americans were saving something special for the city."
Hersey wrote a story of suffering and tragedy which did not become maudlin. A few vivid images contrasted strikingly with his generally lean prose, indelibly fixing them in the minds of his readers. For example, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge unexpectedly encountered a score of soldiers in Asano Park: "their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks…. Their mouths were mere swollen, pus-covered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot." When the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto attempted to lift an injured woman into a boat, "her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces." Hersey counterpoised a few graphic scenes like these with examples of heroism and endurance. The overall effect compelled readers to believe, with more assurance than some survivors felt, that the victims were human beings.
If debunkers like De Seversky and the results of Bikini seemed to minimize the power of the bomb, Hersey provided a powerful antidote. The bomb used at Hiroshima, he observed, was a relatively "primitive" weapon, and scientists "knew that theoretically one ten times as powerful—or twenty—could be developed." More vividly than all previous publications combined, "Hiroshima" suggested for Americans what a surprise atomic attack could do to an American city and its inhabitants. Although Hersey quoted the official estimate of 78,500 killed, he believed this was a conservative calculation, and he placed the death toll at 100,000. Indirectly, he refuted the claim that flimsy Japanese construction caused most of the destruction, for he noted that Japanese building regulations, since the 1923 earthquake, set much higher construction standards than normal American building codes. He made available to readers new findings that estimated Japanese fatalities from radiation at twenty percent of the total; and, perhaps more importantly, he graphically depicted death and suffering from radiation poisoning. Survivors of the blast and fire, including those with no visible wounds, often showed the symptoms of radiation sickness in the days and weeks after the bombing: nausea, headache, diarrhea, faintness, loss of strength, low white-blood-cell counts, anemia, hemorrhaging, fever, and loss of hair. While many recovered from radioactive poisoning, others died from it and attendant complications.
That the six survivors "were among the luckiest in Hiroshima" made the bombing even more terrible. Hersey reported that most Japanese did not hate the Americans and that the survivors felt a strong sense of community spirit after the bombing. But he concluded by raising the ethical question of the bomb's use, leaving it unresolved and challenging readers to examine their own thoughts.
Americans were fascinated by Hersey's article. Some readers complained that "Hiroshima" was inconsistent with typical New Yorker fare, and they criticized the magazine for devoting an entire issue to the story. Most readers approved in enthusiastically, however. A study of a random sample of 339 letters, telegrams, and postcards to the New Yorker dated within two weeks of the article's appearance revealed that readers approved the story's publication by a ten to one margin. Correspondents frequently agreed with one reader who declared: "God bless and keep the editors who showed such courage and cared so much for humanity & civilization." Hersey's effort to characterize the bombing in human terms was, for many readers, an unqualified success. A university student wrote that, before reading "Hiroshima" "I had never thought of the people in the bombed cities as individuals." According to others, the most pertinent implication of the article was its eloquent testimony to the need for effective international control of the bomb and for eliminating the conditions that breed war.
By the very horror which it described, "Hiroshima" revived the moral question of whether the United States should have used the bomb. Some observers thought that the vast popularity of the story testified, in part, to the guilty consciences of many Americans. Eleven percent of the New Yorker correspondents mentioned the shame or responsibility they felt for making this deed possible. In some instances, this shame was merely expressed as a "vague feeling of being uncomfortably ill-at-ease." For others the impact evidently provoked a drastic change in their earlier attitudes toward dropping the bomb. One young scientist, previously quite proud of his role in the Manhattan Project, reported he "wept as I read" the article and was "filled with shame to recall the whoopee spirit" with which he and others greeted the news of the Hiroshima bombing in 1945. Another reader, who in 1945 approved dropping the bomb, wrote after reading the article: "I am bitterly humiliated that my country should have been the one to first (or at all) invoke this method of warfare."
Most of these people who stated or implied that "Hiroshima" changed their thinking about America's use of the bomb did not offer specific alternatives to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Responding rather spontaneously and evidently still emotionally keyed-up by the story, they usually wrote only in general terms of their shame and horror.
Still other readers, who had previously deplored the use or manner of using the bomb, employed "Hiroshima" to reinforce and restate their earlier protests. A conscientious objector, who had spent twenty-eight months in prison because he opposed war, argued that Hersey's story "completely vindicates the stand of conscientious objectors in the United States." Hersey's discussion of radioactivity inspired Norman Cousins, editor of Saturday Review, to an impassioned indictment of the atomic attacks. "Do we know," he asked rhetorically,
that many thousands of human beings in Japan will die of cancer during the next few years because of radioactivity released by the bomb? Do we know that the atomic bomb is in reality a death ray, and that the damage by blast and fire may be secondary to the damage caused by the radiological assault upon human tissue?
According to columnist Milton Mayer, who had bitterly censured both the atomic bombings and the scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, "Hiroshima was more than the greatest reporting of our time; it was prophetic." The Messenger, published by the Evangelical and Reformed Church, regarded the story as a graphic reminder of America's inexcusable atrocity.
A few writers, who had been critical of the atomic bombings before the New Yorker article appeared, complained because Hersey had failed to condemn the bomb's use decisively enough. Dwight Macdonald, editor of Politics, and Mary McCarthy, a prominent writer, denounced the apparent moral objectivity which many readers praised. Macdonald "found it so dull that I stopped reading it half-way through." Criticizing the "moral deficiency" of its literary naturalism, Macdonald charged that the Hiroshima victims "might just as well be white mice, for all the pity, horror or indignation the reader—or at least this reader—is made to feel for them." Mary McCarthy agreed with Macdonald that Hersey's non-polemical stance and his emphasis on the survivors' recovery and the continuity of life rendered the bomb safe and familiar. She insisted that "Hiroshima" minimized "the atom bomb by treating it as though it belonged to the familiar order of catastrophes—fire, flood, earthquake—which we have always had with us and which offer to the journalist … an unparalleled wealth of human interest stories, examples of the marvelous, and true-life narratives of incredible escapes."
Confronted with the implied challenge posed by "Hiroshima," many Americans remained unshaken in their previous approval of the atomic bombings. Even readers who warmly admired the story and sympathized with the victims still insisted that the bombing was justified. Hersey only told us what we have long known, insisted a New York Times editorial—that war is terrible and that the atomic bomb heightens its terror by concentrating its destruction in time and space. Many "Hiroshima" readers invoked the familiar arguments that despite its horror the bomb ended the war, making an invasion unnecessary; that the Japanese had committed many wartime atrocities; and that, in any case, the United States was fortunate to develop and use the bomb before the enemy did.
What alarmed a few readers was the suspicion that Hersey, the New Yorker, and other unnamed sources deliberately sought to make Americans feel guilty about the atomic bombings. "The atomic bomb is nothing more or less than a super-powered explosive capable of lethal side effects," declared one irate reader, who went on to suggest that "propaganda" like "Hiroshima" was designed to confuse the American public. A university professor reported that "Hiroshima" made his friends lament America's past use of the bomb and oppose its future use. He wrote: "You and Hersey have, I fear, brought a large segment of highminded Americans to the mourners' bench where they are practically groveling in a welter of conviction of sin." The professor feared that "this Hersey-Atbomb [sic] stuff" might provoke the kind of disarmament movement which, he said, crippled America's defenses before the war.
Hersey had not intended to write an exposé. But by inviting a sympathetic, vicarious identification with the atomic bomb victims, his article did inspire self-questioning and indignation. "Hiroshima" prompted some Americans to rethink their previous approval of the atomic bombings, while it intensified the anger of those who had initially condemned the bomb's use.
Yet in retrospect one of the most striking features of the American reception of "Hiroshima" is how little, rather than how much, protest it inspired against the atomic bombings. Hersey's study did not precipitate a wave of petitions to President Truman censuring the decision to drop the bomb. To express their sorrow and apprehension over the atomic bombings, some Americans engaged in ceremonial acts of contrition: they made monetary donations to relieve the suffering of survivors and held commemorations to mark the anniversary of the first atomic attacks. A "Hiroshima" reader suggested that the New Yorker inform readers how they could make contributions "to offset some of their guilt feelings over the whole miserable business." A special commission of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America valued efforts on behalf of the stricken cities and their survivors as at least "a token" of American repentance and as a wholesome gesture toward reconciliation.
These symbolic acts of penitence and good will, however, were very sporadic during the immediate postwar period, and few can be tied directly to the publication of "Hiroshima." Early expressions of contrition never assumed the proportions of campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s when the bomb-scarred "Hiroshima Maidens" came to the United States for medical treatment and when American and foreign peace groups attempted to exploit the reputed guilt feelings of former Major Claude R. Eatherly, pilot of the weather plane over Hiroshima.
Furthermore, soon after the appearance of Hersey's work, two accounts justifying the decision to build and use the atomic bomb appeared in prominent American magazines. Although not intended as rebuttals to Hersey, they did enter into the general public controversy which his article helped revive. Karl T. Compton published his article, "If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used," in the December, 1946, issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Compton provided little new information, but his study carried the stamp of authority; Compton was familiar with the development of the Manhattan Project, and, like Hersey, he drew upon his own observations and interviews in Japan. Claiming the bomb shortened the war by providing a face-saving excuse for Japan's leaders to surrender, Compton vigorously insisted that a costly invasion of the Japanese homeland was the alternative to the atomic bombings. The Compton article, publicly applauded by President Truman, was followed in February 1947 by former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson's essay, "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb," published in Harper's.
This article, possibly written at Truman's request, was designed to reassure Americans who debated the wisdom and necessity of using the bomb. Evidently suspicious of segments of the American intelligentsia, Stimson also hoped to shape the way future generations of Americans regarded the first atomic bombing. He explained to Truman:
The criticisms which it [the article] has been intended to answer as far as possible were made mainly by Chicago scientists, some of whom had been connected with the development of the [atomic bomb] project The article has also been intended to satisfy the doubts of that rather difficult class of the community which will have charge of the education of the next generation, namely educators and historians.
Stimson stressed how carefully American decision-makers proceeded before they decided to drop the bomb. For the first time Americans learned concretely, though briefly, about the advisory role that certain high ranking scientists played in this decision Stimson conveyed the impression that decision-makers reluctantly agreed to the surprise use of the bomb on urban targets only after rejecting alternative possibilities: an advance warning, a demonstration on an unpopulated area, or the exploration of Japanese peace feelers. Perhaps Stimson's most convincing argument was attributing to American decision-makers before the bomb was used an awareness of its likely psychological impact on Japanese leaders Various government and military spokesmen, as well as the USSBS had underlined the face-saving value of the bomb. Now Stimson stated clearly that American decision-makers had anticipated precisely the course of events which transpired. "The bomb thus served exactly the purpose we intended," he wrote. "The peace party was able to take the path of surrender, and the whole weight of the Emperor's prestige was exerted in favor of peace."
If troubled Americans or defenders of the atomic bombings still possessed doubts, in early 1947 they received comfort from an unexpected source. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios prepared its full length feature film, "The Beginning or The End," in cooperation with the Federation of American Scientists, the War Department, and the White House. Perhaps because the film required government approval, it presented the decision to use the bomb in a manner favorable to American political leaders. In any case, the White House and the War Department approved the final script.
Although the movie claimed to be "basically a true story," it was so only in the most general sense. It combined an essentially authentic survey of the Manhattan Project with two insipid, fictional love stories. More importantly, it exploited melodrama and distorted history to justify the bomb's use. The reservations that some Manhattan Project scientists had about the development and use of the bomb were not treated as seriously as the success of the Manhattan Project itself. In dealing with the actual decision to drop the bomb, the movie emphasized the great care with which the President proceeded by showing the actor playing President Truman suffering sleepless nights and holding numerous conferences on the subject with his advisors. Finally, the Truman character implied that leaflets would be dropped which would warn of an atomic attack and urge the Japanese to evacuate; this false implication was repeated later on the flight to Hiroshima when one crew member remarked: "We've been dropping warning leaflets on them for ten days now. That's ten days more warning than they gave us before Pearl Harbor."
The Compton and Stimson articles, as well as "The Beginning or The End," should not be viewed as one-dimensional counterattacks on Hersey which were designed deliberately and exclusively to offset whatever guilt "Hiroshima" might have generated. Although they could have this effect, their importance is more subtle. The articles and movie are significant less for refuting Hersey than for reflecting what Americans wanted to believe about the Manhattan Project: that those who guided and worked on it were humane, resourceful, and responsible; and that American leaders had used the bomb only after a brief but appropriate period of doubt and secret debate. Americans could, with no apparent inconsistency, appreciate Hersey's work without also engaging in a collective mea culpa or demanding scientific and governmental scapegoats to salve their own consciences. The bomb apparently had ended the war, and in the absence of persuasive evidence to the contrary, few Americans were disposed to reverse their initial approval.
The remarkable response to "Hiroshima" therefore, should be understood in the context of the controversy over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mid-1946. "Hiroshima" appeared when apathy over the atomic bombings and even the bomb itself was intensifying and spreading. American sensibilities had been dulled not only by the reports of Groves, De Seversky, and the Bikini tests but also by the way the mass media had portrayed the static remains of the atomic-bombed cities. The numerous post-bombing photographs and newsreels of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made them look like any other war devastated city. Americans could comprehend that one bomb had caused the damage, but the media did not fully demonstrate that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were qualitatively different from other kinds of wartime catastrophes. Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy thought that Hersey also failed to make the distinction, but Hersey's readers often did see the difference.
Hersey restored for a time the awe and anxiety that Americans felt when they first learned of the new weapon. But he did more. By building his story around six survivors whose experiences he sketched compassionately in vivid detail, Hersey encouraged readers to empathize with the Japanese victims rather than to view them with detachment, indifference, or hatred.
Of equal importance, "Hiroshima" transferred the experience of atomic attack from the traditional categories of war horrors to a more unique level. The article seemingly persuaded many readers that atomic bombing was qualitatively different from other kinds of bombings. Raids on population centers with conventional bombs and incendiaries could wreak terrible havoc, but inhabitants ordinarily had some advance warning and could seek shelter. In addition to the element of surprise, the atomic bomb seemed to transform the nature of air warfare by investing enormous potential destruction in a few aircraft. Because the devastation was disproportionate to the size of the weapon and the few planes needed for delivery, atomic bombing acquired a different character from the familiar, massive air raids of World War II. Finally, "Hiroshima" suggested that atomic bombing protracted the agony and uncertainty of its victims by introducing a new phenomenon in warfare, radiation sickness. Hersey implied that radioactivity, temporarily at least, affected the reproductive processes, and he demonstrated three terrible aspects of radioactive poisoning: it destroyed organic life rather than material objects; it could later strike unexpectedly the survivors of the initial blast and fire; and, contrary to General Groves's assertion, it definitely was not "a very pleasant way to die."
"Hiroshima" undoubtedly was, as Lawrence Wittner suggests, "the real source of long-term guilt reactions" for some Americans concerning the atomic bomb. Wittner adds: "It is surely one of the curiosities of twentieth-century American life that this recurrent theme of America's collective guilt, so deeply moving and compelling for some, in fact touched so few." This is particularly true for the immediate postwar period, for the guilt produced by the bomb and especially by "Hiroshima" can easily be exaggerated. Hersey's work aroused many readers but incited few of them. It enabled American readers to reaffirm their humane sentiments and to examine their consciences, but "Hiroshima" did not require Americans to question the legitimacy of the bomb's use. Hersey did not write a call to action or a polemic against American decision-makers. Had he done so, his appeal might well have been reduced. Hersey struck precisely the right note by inviting readers to view the bomb victims as objectively and sympathetically as he had. Since his principal informants were all civilians, Hersey, probably unintentionally, encouraged Americans to sharpen the distinction between ordinary "decent" Japanese citizens on the one hand and Japan's supposedly ruthless and fanatical rulers and soldiers on the other. Making this distinction was an important step if some Americans were to suffer "long-term guilt reactions."
The failure of "Hiroshima" in the postwar period to arouse many Americans to public protest came not from alleged weaknesses of the story but from the endurance of popular wartime attitudes and the temporary monopoly on the atomic bomb which the United States enjoyed. Any major reversal of public opinion regarding the atomic attacks required a more drastic change in attitudes toward the Japanese than even "Hiroshima" could achieve in 1946 and 1947. The war, moreover, conditioned Americans to condone virtually any weapon or method of warfare employed by the United States that might end the conflict quickly. Changes in attitudes toward the bomb's use, therefore, had to grow in part from the realization that criteria other than military necessity might have equal or greater validity in the conduct of war. Furthermore, Americans would have to share the ominous dread that they might, at any moment, experience the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a dread which could only occur when a potential enemy actually possessed nuclear weapons. Finally, a thorough reevaluation of the morality and wisdom of the bomb's use required more information than Hersey could supply. Americans needed additional knowledge concerning the military situation in the Pacific in August 1945, the circumstances that culminated in the decision to drop the bomb, and the efforts before August 6 by some scientists and officials to prevent the surprise use of the bomb on urban areas. "Hiroshima" did not analyze these and other specific diplomatic, political, and military considerations. Nor did Hersey speculate on the implications for the United States if a rival power acquired atomic bombs.
Yet if the American conscience grew more rather than less troubled in later years over the atomic attacks on Japan, Hersey was as responsible as any other person. Subsequent writers confronted directly the necessity of the bomb's use on Japan and analyzed the meaning of Hiroshima as the prelude to a spiraling nuclear arms race. But Hersey laid the groundwork for later assessments by posing the issue of atomic bombing from the standpoint of the human victims. By raising certain moral questions, rather than resolving them, Hersey heightened American sensitivities and contributed to a continuing dialogue over the justification for atomic warfare.
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